Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Why We Read Literary Journals: "Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre"

To balance the sad news below about TriQuarterly, I’ll focus briefly on what literary journals do best: bring great work forward and introduce readers to writers they may not be familiar with.

I’ve always liked the concept and execution of One Story, which prints one story per issue (a subscription gets you 18 issues spread throughout the year). The issues are small and thin, very portable, so I often find myself grabbing one when I’m headed somewhere on the metro or think I may be sitting at a restaurant table waiting for someone.

Recently, I grabbed Issue Number 124, featuring “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre” by Seth Fried and started reading on the metro. I almost missed my stop because I was so engrossed in my reading.

I can’t imagine anyone not being hooked by this first line: “Last year, the people in charge of the picnic blew us up.” And the second is even more delicious: “Every year it gets worse.” The kicker comes next: “That is, more people die.” How could anyone not read on?

The story is told in the collective first person—“we”—as we learn more about this horrific annual town picnic and the citizens who are unable to simply stay home despite the laugh out-loud, freakish deaths that decimate picnickers:

“One year, the muskets of the Revolutionary War Reenactment Society were somehow packed with live ammunition. Another year, all the children who played in the picnic’s Bouncy Castle died of radiation poisoning. Yet another year, it was discovered halfway through the picnic that a third of the port-a-potties contained poisonous snakes. The year we were offered free hot air balloon rides, none of the balloons that left—containing people laughing and waving from the baskets, snapping pictures as they ascended—ever returned.”

None of this is funny…and yet it is.

Of course, it’s also ominous. Why do people keep attending this picnic? Will things get worse? What’s worse than this? This story reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”—that grim, that frightening, that classic. (Best American Short Stories editor, are you listening?)

You can read an interview with author Seth Fried here (as well as find out how to get a copy of the issue or a subscription).

Interview excerpt:
The last scene is very dramatic and menacing. What did you want readers to leave this story with?
If any of the anxieties expressed in this story are familiar to readers, I hope that readers will take comfort in seeing those anxieties on the page. I always feel relieved when I read a story and the author is expressing some concern about the world that I share. It’s cathartic. That’s the level of communication that I’m always hoping for whether I’m reading a story or writing one.

And you can learn more about Seth Fried on his blog, found here. (Warning to fragile psyches: You will learn that Seth is only 26 years old!)


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.